So much time passes between the screams.
In the world of The Returned, it’s four years. In TV time, it’s about 45 minutes. But for a television show in a genre whose lingua franca is the scream, it might as well be an eternity. It’s a bold opening statement from The Returned: There will be shouting. There will be cries for help. There will be tears. But full-throated, completely unnerved expressions of terror—those are being reserved for the moments when they’re truly merited. Death occurs all the time in this world, usually with minimal fanfare. But opening a door to find a four-years-older version of yourself on the other side? That’s worth all the screaming your voice can handle.
“Camille” is the perfect first chapter for a show like The Returned. It’s all mood, mystery, and restraint—the third item in that list a tremendous surprise, considering the show-no-mercy extremes that seized French horror cinema in the mid-to-late 2000s. There are visceral chills and haunting imagery laced throughout the episode, but its style stands in stark contrast to gore-splattered films like High Tension, Inside, and Martyrs. Then again, this is only the beginning of The Returned—maybe creepy li’l Victor will be gnawing through aortas by the end of episode six.
That’s part of the appeal of “Camille’s” scene-setting: At this point, there are so many unknowns within The Returned that such a violent turn of events isn’t entirely out of the question. It would completely disrupt what’s going on here, but that lack of explanation is so wondrously inviting. This is nothing new for television: These riddles, the sense that anything could happen—they’re intrinsic to the opening passages of shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. Certain specifics of The Returned are especially calibrated to ping the plastic-wrapped receptors of Twin Peaks fanatics: The isolated mountain town at its center, a tragedy that pulls an entire population together, supernatural happenings that appear specific to this location. But whereas Twin Peaks opens immediately after Laura Palmer’s murder, The Returned prefers to linger. This is television after all; timelines can be folded back on themselves and just as quickly re-opened. “Camille” opens with the bus crash that took the titular character’s life before jumping forward four years—at which point Camille and several others wake up from very, very long naps. The mourning period has concluded; the time for asking questions is at hand.
And there are plenty of questions to be asked, though the momentum of the narrative only seems pegged to one of them: Why are the dead returning to life? Otherwise, “Camille” takes a character-centric approach to these extraordinary circumstances, letting the shock of returning to life seep over Camille and company slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it isn’t until immaculately tousled rocker Simon gets a load of his own grave that any of The Returned (the revenants of the show’s original title) knows they’re supposed to be in the ground. There isn’t much talk about it from the living, either—but there’s not much talk in this first episode at all. One of the reasons the French-language series translates so well in this foreign market is all space around its dialogue. There are questions to be asked, but the shock of the situation is such that everyone who’s come in contact with a previously deceased loved one—and the local nurse who’s now reluctant caregiver to the quietest character of all—has to deal with the startling new reality before inquiries can even begin. In that respect, they’re returning to the same kinds of thoughts and emotions they had when they lost these people from their lives.
It’s all in line with the premiere’s treatment of the line dividing these characters: In The Returned, death just happens. Four (possibly five) dead people returning to their old lives with no memory of passing (and with strong appetites) is incident enough. That’s the event that knocks the world as we know it off its axis. But death? Death’s everyday stuff. “Camille” establishes this in its first few minutes: The camera cuts from the interior of the bus to the exterior, and the most matter of fact auto accident in television history unfolds. From the opposite angle, the circumstances of the crash are much stranger, but the cold open still sets expectations for what comes after it. A bus tumbles over a highway barrier. An elderly man plummets off the edge of a dam. A woman is stabbed in the gut. A butterfly is pinned to a frame. What connects these events? Merely death—the one experience guaranteed to every being that has ever lived.
But some connections go deeper, and that’s also something The Returned is acutely aware of. And that brings us back to that scream, the ear-piercing, air-shattering sound Camille emits when she realizes the older, taller person standing where her twin sister should be is her twin sister—and time has cruelly separated them by four years. It’s devastating, and such an inventive way to explore loss, grief, and progressing. In the time she was… wherever she was, Camille’s family carried on without her. Her parents separated. Her sister picked up some nasty habits. They dedicated monuments to her memory, both great and small. Not all of the changes were positive, but they were indicative of forward motion.
Then Camille returns, and everything goes crashing back into the past. All the old feelings are dredged up. Jerome stays over for what’s probably the longest period of time since he and Claire separated. It’s difficult, and The Returned doesn’t shy away from the difficulty. It’s mysterious, and the show allows the mystery to hover above the proceedings. Also: It’s fucking terrifying, and that’s the sensation in which “Camille” lets its audience soak.
It’s scary when the ghoul is a stranger—that’s why the most traditional horror-movie moments of The Returned’s first episode belong to ghostly Victor and Lucy’s unidentified, invulnerable assailant. It’s scarier when the ghoul knows you—that’s why Adele breaks down in tears and why Mr. Costa takes a long walk off a short ledge. But it’s scariest when the ghoul is you. That’s the kind of thing worth screaming about—and it’s why “Camille” is the type of episode worth raving about, too.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of The Returned. I trust you’ve all read Todd’s pre-air review of the first season? I also have screeners for all eight episodes, but I’d really like to consider them one by one—so I won’t do much advance viewing, and the reviews will be free of details about episodes that haven’t aired on Sundance yet. It’s been a full year since the show’s initial run in its home country, which means some of you may have seen most or all of the first season. For those who have: Please be courteous to your fellow readers and keep the spoilers to a minimum. If you must include a spoiler in the discussion, mark it as such.
- The great shock of this episode’s ending is heightened by all of the things that haven’t changed in Claire’s house—when the coda flashes back to the day of the school trip, everything in the kitchen is the same, save for the photo that was moved to Camille’s room. When something has changed, Camille is quick to note it: The “ugly” tumbler on the counter, the fact that her father has taken up smoking. It’s makes the impact that much greater when she discovers an aged Lena.
- There’s something going on with the reservoir: In which we track what’s happening to the reservoir, the most oblique mystery in a show full of ’em. This week: The water level is down. Should it be reported? Yes. Does it have something to do with Mr. Costa’s suicide? To be determined.
- Zombie-that’s-not-a-zombie of the week: Since the living dead of The Returned aren’t technically zombies (they’re revenants—a whole different ball of wax), let’s devote a space in the strays every week to other notable zombies who aren’t zombies. Let’s start with Rod Argent, vocalist-keyboardist for British invasion act The Zombies—a Zombie who’s not a zombie. One of the group’s main songwriters, Argent is responsible for “Care Of Cell 44,” the pitch-perfect opener of The Zombies’ (unintentionally misspelled) masterpiece, Odessey And Oracle. The song is also an obvious theme-song choice for a version of The Returned that doesn’t take place in a gloomy French Alps village.